The Banaue Rice Terraces, often called “The 8th Wonder of the World,” remains a wonderful slice of rural Philippine life; a spot that is well worth making the effort to get if only to experience an age-old way of life.
Story and Photos by Dave Stamboulis.
Two old women with hand knitted red sweaters and turban-like head coverings spit out the juice of betel nut, as red as their pullovers, and quite the vivid contrast with the lush green surrounding me. These women, members of the Ifugao tribe, are taking it easy, chewing betel nut and dipping in to a stash of bayah rice beer they have hidden at their feet, probably a well needed respite from the taxing labor they have done most of their lives, continuing in their ancestors traditions of building some of the world’s most exquisite mountain rice terraces.
Banaue, reached only via a taxing bus journey through the rugged Cordillera Mountains of the northern Philippines, has been called the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” The lush cascading rice terraces that cross the mountainsides here were built by the Ifugao ancestors over two thousand years ago, all by hand, made up of stonewalls and mud, and designed with elaborate irrigation systems as well coming from the rainforests in the mountains above.
While erosion and drought have impacted the terraces a bit over the years–not to mention that the younger Ifugao generation no longer want to work the terraces, preferring easier and more lucrative careers in tourism–the terraces are still fully functioning, both as a major source of pride and revenue for the locals, as well as combining age-old tradition with modern progress. In 2001, the terraces were put on the World Heritage In Danger list, but with sustainable tourism making a rise, along with conservation programs installed by the local government, as well as a four-fold rise in the price of rice, the terraces were removed from the list after a decade. Additionally, as of 2009, the terraces were declared free from any genetically modified organisms, a project carried out with both local support and that of Greenpeace.
Banaue town itself lacks charms because it has become rather sprawling, overbuilt, and is mainly full of pestering vendors trying to hawk small carved wooden statues known as bulol, which are actually rice guardians that are an important part of the Ifugao spiritual belief system. However, it is easy enough to escape the town and head further afield, to small villages surrounded by walls of rice.
I make my way to the outskirts of Batad, to a tiny hamlet with a cluster of houses surrounded by verdant green, from where a track winds up the mountainside to a spot at 1,100 meters known as the Batad Saddle. Reached only via footpaths and the rare off-road vehicle, the Saddle perches right on top of a large natural bowl, which is filled with elevated terraces and the village of Batad below. There are guesthouses to spend the night in, and guides are available to trek across the mountains back to Banaue, a trip of two to four days, which takes in some of the most dramatic terrace scenery in the Cordillera, passing farmers doing dyke repair and plowing with their water buffalo, amid an artist’s palette and collage of brilliant color.
While the terraces around Banaue are mud-walled, the Batad fields have amphitheater-like stonewalls around them, and the work put in to create and maintain them is quite phenomenal. Batad is one of these villages that time seems to have forgotten, surrounded by mountains, far from roads, and well off the grid. While electricity reached here in 2008, there still is no Internet, and even phone signals rarely work. A common sight here is to see cell phones hung up on a clothesline out in the fields, with the owner waiting for a signal to touch down.
While Batad sees its fair share of backpackers and intrepid travelers, villages like Cambulo and Pula farther afield see almost none. Getting to these hamlets requires carrying a pack, preferably hiring a local guide, and negotiating the slippery and narrow elevated paths that meander from terrace to terrace, giving one an immense appreciation for just how talented the Ifugao are. The paths here have been used for centuries, and even today, it is common to see old Ifugao men nimbly making their way up the mountainsides, en route to Banaue to buy supplies, or perhaps find transport to Manila in order to visit grandchildren that have moved away.
While the old men remain hearty, the children have it slightly easier. Youngsters in Batad these days attend school in Banaue, either by getting a jeepney from the road junction down below the Batad Saddle, or via a rare jeep ride all the way up. In any case they still do plenty of walking and the entire region, remote as it is and surrounded by the Cordillera walls, remains a wonderful slice of rural Philippine life, and a spot that is well worth making the effort to get to experience an age-old way of life.
The only way to get to Banaue is via bus. Overnight coaches leave from both Manila and Baguio, taking about nine hours. The nearest airport is in Cauayan, but this still leaves you some six hours from Banaue. Once in Banaue, you can hire jeeps to get directly up to the Batad Saddle, or else take cheaper tricycles (motorcycle with a sidecar) to get to the Batad Junction, from where it is about a 45-minute walk to climb up to the Saddle.